UPDATE: Just a week after this column published in Variety, the Television Academy has responded — and instituted a new rule, effective in 2022, “Any film placed on the AMPAS viewing platform will be deemed a theatrical motion picture and thus ineligible for the Emmy competition.” That will effectively end the lingering double-dipping scenario seen this year, and written about below. Read more about it here.
Remember when National Geographic’s “Free Solo” won the Academy Award for documentary in 2018 and then went on to win six Emmys, including directing for a documentary/nonfiction program? Or when ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” did the same thing in 2016?
The loophole that allowed docs to somehow compete in both Oscars and Emmys was always a bit bizarre. It couldn’t happen in scripted, where the rules have been ironclad: If you were released theatrically first, you’re a movie; if you’re on television, you’re, well, TV.
In documentary, though, it’s often TV outlets such as HBO, PBS or Nat Geo commissioning and funding the projects to air on their networks — making them, arguably, TV projects. But if they’re screened in theaters, the Oscars can claim them too. “Why a television documentary is eligible for AMPAS’ feature awards is a question for AMPAS,” the TV Academy told me a few years ago with a touch of delicious shade.
Of course, in 2021, it’s all blurred and difficult to figure out what’s what — especially after a year in which movie houses were closed and films were screened at home. Recently, several awards pundits included Seth Rogen’s HBO Max film “An American Pickle” on their list of Emmy contenders for TV movie. HBO Max had to inform everyone that “An American Pickle” had been on the theatrical track and wouldn’t be submitted for an Emmy. (Honestly, I think they should have — TV movie is a sparse category, and Rogen’s presence would have put him firmly in the mix.)
Even before the pandemic year eliminated platform distinctions, such streamers as Amazon Prime Video directed projects to either Oscar or Emmy consideration depending on where they originated. If the feature film team developed or acquired the project, it’s a movie. If the TV team did, it’s a program.
But who knows anymore? Amazon Studios was just in the Oscars mix with “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” but is now competing in the Emmy short form nonfiction series field with the companion piece “Debunking Borat.” (That’s not a new phenomenon, by the way, as TV specials based on feature films are often in the Emmy hunt.)
That brings us back to the documentary conundrum. Last year, the Television Academy appeared to have finally resolved this issue of double dipping by firmly ruling that “effective in 2021, programs that have been nominated for an Oscar will no longer be eligible for the Emmys competition.”
That means this year’s Oscar winner “My Octopus Teacher” can’t enter — and neither can the four other nominees. And yet … docs that had campaigned for an Oscar but didn’t make it to the list of five nominees can try again. Back in the hunt for the exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking Emmy are entries including Apple TV Plus’ “Boys State,” Netflix’s “Dick Johnson Is Dead” and Amazon’s “All In: The Fight for Democracy.”
All those docs were among the 15 that made it on the 93rd Academy Awards documentary feature shortlist, which made them frontrunners for Oscar contention. They get a do-over, but is that fair when Oscar nominees including Netflix’s “Crip Camp,” PBS/Independent Lens’ “The Mole Agent” or Amazon’s “Time” don’t?
Perhaps the next step is to clarify that any film that makes the Oscars shortlist shouldn’t be considered for Emmy consideration. Or maybe — and I know the studios won’t like this — we demand that the Motion Picture Academy stops raiding TV for its documentary category.